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Preface to Rancière’s ‘Proletarian Nights’

Preface to
‘Proletarian Nights’

The article printed below is a translation of the
Introduction (pp.7-l2) of Jacques Ranci~re’s La Nuit
des Proletaires, which was published last year [1].

The book deals with some well known events of the
l830s and l840s – the utopias of Fourier, Saint-Simon,
Cabet and Enfantin; the ‘Free Women’; the socialist
communes in the French provinces; the journeys to
Egypt, and the doomed ‘Icarian’ colonies in Texas and
Illinois. These enterprises have been described
before; but the originality of Ranciere’s book is
that it is based on the poems and autobiographical
essays of a few of the working class Parisians who
were caught up in them – men and women born about
1810, who wrote confident socialist vindications in
the l830s, subsiding into bewildered recollections
in the l880s.

The important point about Ranciere’s account is
that it illustrates over and over again that the ‘cry
of an oppressed people’, for which socialists and
historians listen out with anxious attention, has
complexities which have been systematically neglected.

The writings treated by Ranciere express not an
enthusiastic working class identity, but a yearning
to escape to a better life, envisaged in mostly
aesthetic terms – the life of painters, poets,
philosophers and musicians; the life, in fact, of
the leisured and educated intellectuals, who in turn
thought of themselves as the natural political
representatives of the oppressed.

Ranci~re’s pages reveal, amongst other things, a
sort of conspiracy of partly delusive self-images a thoroughgoing reciprocity of imaginary representations, with workers and intellectuals figuring in
each other’s imaginations in endless circularity:

Proletarians needed to grasp the secret of
others in order to define the meaning of their
own existence …. They did not lack an understanding of exploitation; what they required
was an understanding of themselves as beings
destined for something other than exploitation:

an insight which they could attain only through
the secret of others – of middle class
intellectuals.

(pp.3l-32)
It was, as Ranci~re writes,
a question of identity, of image, of the
relation of Self and Other, both posing and
concealing the problem of either maintaining
or crossing the gulf between those whose
business was thought and those who worked
with their hands.

(p.22)

There was not a complete correspondence, however,
between the values of the socialist intellectuals and
the aspirations of the socialist workers. For
instance, while Saint-Simonian intellectuals concentrated on the economic division between wealthproducing toilers and parasitic idlers, the ‘declarations of faith’ written by Saint-Simonian workers had
a different preoccupation – the social distinction
between those offering wages and those seeking them
(p.167) .

For Ranci~re, the ambivalence of this political
identity raises a further problem: given that these
socialist workers yearned for a non-proletarian
existence, are they to be dismissed as ‘unrepresenta··
tive’ of their class? Who says what is ‘representative’? When socialists piously seek, ‘as °they often
do, for ‘authentic workers’ affirming a politics of
proletarian self-identity, where does their idea of
‘authenticity’ come from? How do they know when they
have uncovered this ‘mute truth of the people’, this
‘workers’ other culture’, supposedly concealed by
these ‘somewhat bourgeois proletarians’ (p.23)?

The obvious answer is that ‘authentic workers’ can
be identified in terms of the concepts of ‘socialist
science’; but La Nuit des Prol~taires is, implicitly,
a polemic against the pretensions of any such
‘science’. For Ranciere, born in 1940, was a
Communist student at the Ecole Normale Sup6rieure
in Paris in the 1960s. Within the student movement,
he campaigned against those who valorised the spontaneous ideology of students at the expense both of
theory and of the working class; and he adopted
Althusser’s concept of Marxist politics as ‘the
defence of Science against Ideology’ [2]. Ranci~re
participated in Althusser’s famous seminar on
Capital, and an essay of his was included in the
first edition of Lire le Capital [3].

But shortly afterwards Ranciere renounced his
Althusserian commitment to ‘socialist science’. He
underwent (as he wrote later)
an experience which many intellectuals of my
generation had in 1968: our Althusserian
Marxism was a philosophy of order, and every
proposition in it distanced it from the
movement of revolt which was then shaking
the whole bourgeois order.

(La Lecon, p. 9)
In 1969 Ranciere had become a Maoist, and composed
what remains one of the most perceptive criticisms
of Althusser’s use of the science-ideology distinction. Ranciere pointed out that one effect of
Althusser’s concept of ‘ideology in general’ was to

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make it impossible to consider the class basis of
ideologies, particularly in the Soviet Union.

Another was that it substituted a comfy metaphysical
distinction (between truth and falsehood) for a
political choice – between ‘bourgeois ideologies’

and ‘the proletarian ideology of Marxism-Leninism'[4].

Ranci~re’s renunciation of Althusserianism was
more fully revealed in his La Lecon d’Althusser
(1974), a devastating criticism of Althusser’s
violent attack on the ‘humanism’ of John Lewis.

In the first place, according to Ranci~re,
Althusser’s rejection of the taken-for-granted
notion of the individual human subject was hardly a
novelty: such ‘liquidations of the subject’ had been
a philosophers’ commonplace for two hundred years
(p.43). In any case, why pick on Lewis, when the
real target seemed to be nearer home, and more
formidable: Jean-Paul Sartre (p.46)? And then, what
was the theoretical value of Althusser’s ‘theoretical
anti-humanism’ when all it could say about the
‘process without a subject’ was that it had no
subject (p.44)? Moreover, what was its practical
purpose, especially in view of the fact that, while
Althusser was working remorselessly to remove the
concept of ‘man’ from the university, workers outside
were organising an occupation based on the slogan
‘economics for man, not man for economics’ (p.157)?

In 1969, Ranciere had criticised Althusser for
disdaining ‘the proletarian ideology of MarxismLeninism’. But by 1974, the confident singular had
disappeared. ‘Perhaps’, wrote Ranci~re, ‘there is
no one Marxist conceptual scheme, awaiting purification from ideological contaminations or bourgeois
incursions …. Not one logic of Capital but several,
diverse discursive strategies addressed to various
different problems’ (p.154). Ranci~re’s new openness
to the multifariousness of discourses of resistance
led to the formation around him of a group known as
the ‘Centre for Research into Ideologies of Revolt’.

The Centre was nominally associated with Michel

Foucault’s chair at the College de France, and was
deeply involved in Jean-Paul Sartre’s abortive plans
for a series of television programmes on France
between the wars. In 1975, the Centre began to
publish a quarterly journal, Les Revoltes Logiques,
devoted – in the words of the statement in its first
issue – to the construction of ‘an alternative
historical memory’ based on the records of ‘thought
that comes from below’. The fundamental point was
to demonstrate and document the fact that ‘class
struggles do not cease to exist just because they do
not correspond to what is taught in the academy’ [5].

La Nuit de Proletaires is a fine fulfilment of these
aspirations. It is much to be hoped that some
publisher will undertake an English edition.

Jonathan

R~e

Footnotes

4

5

Paris, Librairie Arth~me Fayard, 1981, 45lpp. ISBN 2 213 00985 6.

Jacques Ranci~re, La Le’3on d’Althusser, Paris, Gallimard, 1974, p.87.

‘Le Concept de Critique et la Critique de 1 ‘Economie Politique des
“Manuscri ts” de 1844 au “Capital” I in L. Al thusser, J. Ranci~re and
P. Macherey, Lire le Capital I, Paris, Maspero, 1966, pp.93-2l0. This
essay was dropped from the second (1968) edition, but reprinted separately
in 1973; it was not used in the English version (Reading Capital, New Left
Books, 1970). An English translation appeared in TheoreticaZ Practice 1,
2 and 6, 1971-72.

Ranci~re’ s ‘Sur la Th~orie de l’ Id~ologie’ was written in July 1969, first
published in Spanish in 1970, and in French in 1973, before being included
in La Ley,on d’AZthusser. It was translated into English as ‘On the Theory
of Ideology’, published in RadicaZ Philosophy 7, Spring 1974, pp.2-l4.

Les R1)voltes Logiques 13 (published by Solin, 1 Rue des FosstCs St-Jacques,
Paris 7) appeared in Winter 1981.

Proletarian Nights
Jacques Ranciere

There is nothing metaphorical in this title
Proletarian Nights. The point is not to revive
memories of the sufferings of factory slaves, of
the squalor of workers’ hovels or the misery of
bodies sapped by unbridled exploitation. All that
will only be present via the views and the words,
the dreams and the nightmares of the characters of
this book.

Who are they? A few dozen, a few hundred workers
who were twenty years old around 1830 and who then
resolved, each for himself, to tolerate the intolerable no longer. It was not so much the poverty, the
low wages, the comfortless dwellings, or the everpresent threat of hunger. More fundamentally, it was
anguish at the daily theft of their time as they

worked wood or stone, sewed clothing or stitched
shoes; and all for nothing but the indefinite maintenance of the forces both of servitude and of domination. It was the humiliating absurdity of having to
beg day after day for work which frittered their
lives away. And it was the weight of others too; the
ones in work, with the petty vanity of fairground
muscle-men or the obsequiousness of conscientious
workers; those outside waiting for a place you would
be glad to hand over; and finally those who drove by,
casting a disdainful glance from their open carriages
over all that blighted humanity.

To have done with all that, to know why it ha.d
still not been brought to an end, to change their
lives …. Overturning the world begins at an hour
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when ordinary workers ought to be enjoying the peaceful slumber of those whose trade calls for no thought
whatever. For example, at precisely eight o’clock on
that night of October 1839, a meeting is called at the
house of Martin Rose, the tailor, to found a working
man’s newspaper. Vincard, the maker of measures, who
writes songs for the singing club at the local bar,
has invited Gauny, the carpenter, who gives expression
to his more taciturn temperament in vengeful couplets.

Ponty, another poet, who clears cesspools, will certainly not be there: Bohemian that he is, he has
chosen to work at night. But the carpenter will be
able to tell him the outcome in one of those letters
he copies out around midnight, after several drafts,
letters describing their blundered childhoods and
their wasted lives, plebeian passions and those other
existences beyond death – which may be beginning at
that very moment. He writes those letters out, in an
effort to delay to the very last minute that sleep
which will restore the powers of the servile machine.

The main subject of this book is those nights
wrested from the normal sequence of work and sleep.

They were imperceptible, one might almost say inoffensive breaks in the ordinary course of things,
where already the impossible was being prepared,
dreamt and seen: the suspension of that ancient
hierarchy which subordinates those dedicated to
labour to those endowed with the privilege of thought.

They were nights of study and intoxication, and days
of labour prolonged to hear the word of the apostles
or the lectures given by teachers of the people, to
learn, to dream, to talk or to write. They are
Sunday mornings begun early so as to leave for the
country together and take the dawn by surprise.

Some will do well out of these follies. They will
finish up as entrepreneurs or senators for life and not necessarily traitors for all tha.t. Others
will die of them: by suicide because their aspirations are impossible; by the lethargy which follows
crushed revolutions; by that phthisis which strikes
exiles in the northern fogs; by the plagues of Egypt,
where they went seeking the Woman-Messiah; or by the
malaria of Texas where they went to build Icaria.

Most will spend the rest of their lives in that
anonymity which occasionally throws up in the name
of a worker poet, a strike-leader, the organiser of
an ephemeral association, or the editor of a paper
that is here today and gone tomorrow.

The historian will ask what they represent. What
are they by comparison with the anonymous mass of
factory workers or even the activists in the labour
movement? What do their lines of poetry or even the
prose in their ‘workers’ papers’ amount to compared
with the multitude of day-to-day practices, of acts
of oppression and resistance, or of complaints and
struggles at the workplace and on the streets? This
is a question of method, which tries to link cunning
with ‘straightforwardness’ by identifying the
statistical requirements of science with political
principles which proclaim that only the masses make
history and enjoin those that speak in their name to
represent them faithfully.

But perhaps the masses who are invoked have already given their answer. Why do the striking
Parisian tailors of 1833 and 1840 want their leader
to be Andr~ Troncin, who divides his time between
student caf~s and the study of the great thinkers?

Why will painters in 1848 ask the bizarre caf~­
owner Confais to draft them a constitution, when he
normally bores them stiff with his talk of Fourieresque harmonies and phrenological experiments? Why
did hatters engaged in struggle seek out a one-time
seminarist called Philippe Monnier, whose sister has
gone to play the Free Woman in Egypt and whose
brother-in-law died in pursuit of his American
12

utopia? Certainly those men, whose sermons on the
dignity of working people and on evangelical devotion
the masses normally avoid, do not represent their
daily labours or their daily anger.

But it is precisely because those men are other.

That is why they go to se~ them the day they have
something they want to represent, something they
want to show to the bourgeoisie (bosses, politicians,
judges). It is not simply that those men can talk
better. It is that what had to be represented before
the bourgeoisie was something deeper than salaries,
working hours or the thousand irritations of wagelabour. What has to be represented is what those mad
nights and their spokesmen already make clear: that
proletarians have to be treated as if they have a
right to more than one life. If the protests of the
workplace are to have a voice, if worker emancipation
is to possess a human face, if workers are to exist
as subjects of a collective discourse which gives
meaning to their multifarious assemblies and combats,
those representatives must already have made themselves other in a double, hopeless rejection, refusing both to Zive like workers and to taZk like the
bourgeoisie.

This is the history of isolated utterances, and of
an impossible act of self-identification at the very
root of those great discourses in which the voice of
the proletariat as a whole can be heard. It is a
story of semblances and simulacra which lovers of the
masses have tirelessly tried to cover up – either by
fixing a snap-shot in sepia of the young working
class Movement on the eve of its nuptials with proletarian Theory, or by splashing onto those shadows the
colours of everyday life and of the popular mind.

Solemn admiration for the unknown soldiers of the
proletarian army has come to be mixed with tenderhearted curiosity about their anonymous lives and a
nostalgic passion for the practised movements of the
craftsman or the vigour of popular songs and festivals. These different forms of homage unite to show
that people like that are the more to be admired the
more they adhere strictly to their collective identity, and that they become suspect, indeed, the
moment they want to live as anything other than
legions and legionaries, when they demand that individual wanderlust which is the monopoly of ‘pettybourgeois’ egoism or the illusion of the ‘ideologist’.

The history of these proletarian nights is
explicitly intended to prompt an examination of that
jealous concern for the purity of the masses, the
plebeians or the proletariat. Why ha.s the philosophy
of intelligentsia or activists a.lways needed to blame
some evil third party (petty bourgeoisie, ideologist
or master thinker) for the shadows and obscurities
that get in the way of the harmonious relationship
between their own self-consciousness and the se1fidentity of their ‘popular’ objects of study? Was
not this evil third party contrived to spirit away
another more fearsome threat: that of seeing the
thinkers of the night invade the territory of
Philosophy. It is as if we were pretending to take
seriously the old fantasy which underlies Plato’s
denunciation of the sophists, the fear of philosophy
being devastated by the ‘many whose natures are
imperfect and whose souls are cramped and maimed by
their meannesses, as their bodies are by their trades
and crafts’ [1]. Unless the issue of dignity lies in
another quarter. Unless, that is, we need to exaggerate the positivity of the masses as active subject so
as to throw into relief a confrontation with the ideologist which enables intellectuals to accord to their
philosophy a dignity independent of their occupational
status alone.

These questions are not meant to put anyone in the
dock. But they explain why I make no apologies for

sacrificing the majesty of the masses and the positivity of their practices to the discourses and the
illusions of a few dozen ‘non-representative’ individuals. In the labyrinth of their real and imaginary
travels, I simply wanted to follow the thread of two
guiding questions: What paradoxical route led these
deserters, who wanted to tear themselves free from
the constraints of proletarian existence, to come to
forge the image and the discourse of working class
identity? And what new forms of false construction
affect that paradox when the discourse of workers
infatuated with the night of the intellectuals meets
the discourse of intellectuals infatuated with the
glorious working days of the masses? That is a question we should ask ourselves. But it is a question
immediately experienced within the contradictory relations between the proletariat of the night and the
prophets of the new world – Saint-Simonians, Icarians
or whatever. For, if it is indeed the word of
‘bourgeois’ apostles which creates or deepens a crack
in their daily round of work through which some
workers are drawn into the twists and turns of another
life, the problems begin when the preachers want to
change those twists and turns into the true, straight
road that leads to the dawn of New Labour. They want
to cast their disciples in their identity as good
soldiers of the great militant army and as prototypes
of the worker of the future. Surely, the SaintSimonian workers, blissfully listening to these words
of love, lose even more of that tough workers’ identity that the calling of New Industry requires. And,
looking at the matter from the other direction,
surely the Icarian proletariat will be able to rediscover that identity only by discrediting the
fatherly teachings of their leader.

Perhaps these are so many missed opportunities,
dead-ends of a utopian education, where edifying
Theory will not long delude itself that it can see
the path to self-emancipation beaten out for any
proletariat that is instructed in Science. The
tortuous arguments of L’Ateliep, the first great newspaper ‘made by the workers themselves’, suggest in
advance what the agents detailed to spy on the
workers’ associations which emerged from this twist-

ing path were to discover with surprise: that once
he is master of the instruments and the products of
his labour, the worker cannot manage to convince himself that he is working ‘in his own interest’.

Nonetheless, we should not be too quick to rejoice
at recognising the vanity of the path to emancipation
in this paradox. We may discover tha.t obstinate
initial question with even greater force: What precisely is it that the worker can pursue in his own
intepest? What exactly is at work in the strange
attempt to rebuild the world around a centre that the
inhabitants only want to escape? And is not something
else to be gained on these roads that lead nowhere,
in these efforts to sustain a fundamental rejection
of the order of things, beyond all the constraints of
working-class existence? No one will find much to
strengthen the grounds of his disillusionment or his
bitterness in the paths of these workers who, back in
July 1830, swore that nothing would be the same again,
or in the contradictions of their relations with the
intellectuals who aligned themselves with the masses.

The moral of this tale is quite the reverse of the
one people like to draw from the wisdom of the masses.

It is to some extent the lesson of the impossible,
that of the rejection of the established order even
in the face of the extinction of Utopia. If, for
once, we let the thoughts of those who are not
‘destined’ to think unfold before us, we may come to
recognise that the relationship between the order of
the world and the desires of those subjected to it
presents more complexity than is grasped by the discourses of the intelligentsia. Perhaps we she.ll gain
a certain modesty in deploying grand words and
expressing grand sentiments. Who knows?

In any case, those who venture into this labyrinth
must be honestly forewarned that no answers will be
supplied.

Translated by Noel Parker*
I

Plato, The Republia, trans. Jowett, VI.49S.

* With acknowledgement for help and suggestions from
Pete Dews, Jonathan Ree, Mike Shortland,
Carolyn Sumberg.

Lukas, Heidegger and Fascism
Mark Tebbitt

It has long been acknowledged that there is a
necessity to develop a rational Marxist response to
20th-century existentialism. The post-War debates on
this subject have almost inevitably tended to focus on
the development of Sartre’s philosophy, on his dialogues with official Marxism in France, and above all
on his dialogue with himself, evolving his own personal interpretation of existential Marxism [1]. The
problems arising from these debates have revolved

around the question of the extent to which these two
apparently irreconcilable views of the world can be
genuinely and fruitfully synthesised. There have been
a great number of variations on this theme in postWar France, many of them attempting to broaden the
basis of Marxist philosophy [2]. When we turn back
to consider the significance of Heideggerfs philosophy, however, the problems we are facing are
entirely different and much more uncomfortable.

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